Total Coverage

The CIA, Contras, and Drugs

The CIA-coke connection was detailed long before Dark Alliance – and the evidence keeps coming

by Eric Umansky

Mother Jones (August 25 1998)

You may have seen the headline last month on the front page of The New York Times. (Then again, you may not have, since it ran in a small box on the bottom-left corner.) It announced, “CIA Says It Used Nicaraguan Rebels Accused of Drug Tie”. The beginning of that story read:

The CIA continued to work with about two dozen Nicaraguan rebels and their supporters during the 1980s despite allegations they were trafficking in drugs … The agency’s decision to keep those paid agents, or to continue dealing with them in some less formal relationship, was made by top officials at headquarters in Langley, Virginia.


In other words, top officials at the CIA knew the agency was working with Contra drug traffickers and didn’t do anything about it. But the story, even with that shocking headline, quickly disappeared. None of the other major papers, news magazines, or TV networks reported The New York Times‘ findings.

How did it come to this? The paper of record running a story, perhaps leaked purposely by the CIA itself, that admits what many have charged for years … and then the story disappears as quickly as it came.

A Look at the Twisted History of the CIA/Contra/Cocaine Story

If you’ve heard about the CIA/Contra/crack allegations, it’s probably because of Gary Webb, who in August 1996 authored several stories for the San Jose Mercury News. Titled “Dark Alliance”, the series linked drug smuggling by CIA-trained Contras to the crack epidemic that has ravaged America. It never actually said the CIA knew about the drugs, but it did strongly imply it (the logo for the series – yes, it had a logo – showed a person smoking crack, superimposed over the CIA seal).

The series ignited a firestorm of controversy. And the major papers, specifically The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post, all ran lengthy pieces questioning the accuracy of Webb’s reporting. (These stories were themselves criticized for being hell-bent on proving Gary Webb wrong, rather than attempting to follow up on his stories.) Even Webb’s own editor retreated from the story’s conclusions.

But the story of the CIA-funded Contras trafficking coke isn’t new. And neither is the surprising lack of media interest in getting to the bottom of it.

Contra supporters dealing cocaine to fund their army was actually first reported in 1985, in an article by Robert Parry and Brian Barger of the The Associated Press. After interviewing DEA, Customs, and FBI officials, the article said there was evidence the Contras were importing drugs into the US to support their war effort. No other newspapers followed up on the story. As would be the case in the future, though the press ignored the allegations, the Reagan administration didn’t. The Justice Department contacted the editors at the AP and politely asked them to remove references in that story that connected Contra drug-smuggling to John Hull, a CIA “asset” in Costa Rica.

But information on Contra/drug connections kept coming. In 1987, the allegations eventually led to a Senate investigation (anybody remember that one?) led by John Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts). Among the juicier moments:

Senator KERRY: What did you do with those drugs?

Mr MORALES: Sell them.

Senator KERRY: What did you do with the money?

Mr MORALES: Give it to the Contras.

Senator KERRY: All right.

But did the Kerry committee report find that the US knew about Contra coke-dealing? Here’s an excerpt from the executive summary:

It is clear that individuals who provided support for the Contras were involved in drug trafficking, the supply network of the Contras was used by drug trafficking organizations, and elements of the Contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers. In each case, one or another agency of the US government had information regarding the involvement either while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter.


What was the response when the Kerry Committee report was released? According to a Lexis-Nexis search, only four major papers reported the committee’s findings – none on the front page. The New York Times‘ story, tucked away on Page 8, did mention one of the committee’s more interesting findings:

The State Department paid $806,401 between January and August 1986 to four companies that distributed humanitarian aid to the Contras but “were owned and operated by narcotics traffickers”.


But if the media weren’t biting, the Reagan administration was keenly interested in the committee findings. Jack Blum, the lead investigator for the committee, complained that the administration obstructed the investigation. The report itself complains of pressure from the executive branch:

… officials in the Justice Department sought to undermine attempts by Senator Kerry to have hearings held on the [Contra drug] allegations.


Oliver North’s diary contained at least two extraordinary entries:

From a July 12 1985 meeting with Richard Secord, North’s boss in the Reagan administration:

$14 million to finance came from drugs.


This entry, which was given in part to the Kerry Committee, was first reported in Newsweek. North claimed he did nothing wrong and said the Kerry Committee was “just playing politics and dragging out wild charges”.

And this entry on August 09 1985, which was submitted as part of the Iran-Contra special prosecutor report:

Honduran DC-6 which is being used for runs out of New Orleans is probably being used for drug runs into US.


North claimed he told the DEA about this plane. In 1994, The Washington Post decided to verify North’s claim. The Post interviewed top law officials, from the DEA, Customs, State Department, CIA, and White House, including some who had meetings with North at the time of the diary entry. Each one said that North did not pass the information on to them.

North’s diaries weren’t the only evidence of Contra drug involvement that came out as a result of the Iran-Contra hearings. CIA Central American Task Force Chief Alan Fiers testified during the hearings:

With respect to [drug trafficking by] the Resistance Forces … it is not a couple of people. It is a lot of people.


In 1991, the University of California Press published Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America. The book, written by Peter Dale Scott, an English professor, and Jonathan Marshall, then the economics editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, contained what is still the most detailed and extensive evidence of Contra drug dealing and potential connections to the CIA. The book, mostly based on testimony from the Kerry Committee and other publicly available sources, got nice write-ups in the book review sections of many papers. No major news organizations followed up on the reporting in the book.

The “Dark Alliance” Controversy

The story mostly stayed out of the media for the next five years. Then Gary Webb and the San Jose Mercury News released “Dark Alliance”. In many ways, the series didn’t advance the CIA/Contras/drugs story. But it did make one stunning allegation: The Contras’ drug-smuggling operation bore major responsibility for a public-health epidemic in America.

The cocaine that flooded in helped spark a crack explosion in urban America …


The other papers skewered Webb for, among other things, suggesting that CIA headquarters knew of the Contras’ drug dealings. His own paper backed away from that suggestion too. Jerry Ceppos, executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News, wrote in an editor’s note that “The story was right on many important points”. But, he said, the story was wrong to imply CIA knowledge of Contra drug-dealing. (Yes, that’s the very knowledge the CIA just admitted to The New York Times last month.)

Ironically, it was the title and graphic of the story – “Dark Alliance” and a picture of a crack pipe superimposed over the CIA logo – that most strongly implied a direct CIA connection to drug dealing. And titles and graphics are rarely the responsibility of the author.

The best wrap-up of both Webb’s story and the big papers’ responses to it appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, in an article by Peter Kornbluh, senior analyst at the National Security Archive. He agreed with the major papers’ assertions that Webb’s feature contained hyperbole and overstatement. But he also pointed out that the major papers’ rebuttals had similar problems. He concluded that, by attacking Webb’s story rather than following leads, “The mainstream press shirked its larger duty; thus it bears the larger burden”.

The New Evidence

Both the Justice Department and the CIA launched investigations as a result of the “Dark Alliance” series. The results, so far, have dislodged new evidence that gives credence to Webb’s account, some of it shocking:

The CIA decided to separate its findings into two reports. The first, with the snappy title “Volume I: The California Story”, mostly vindicated the CIA, with one interesting exception: The CIA acknowledged that it had contacted the US Attorney General’s office in San Francisco and asked if money seized in a drug bust – the largest bust in California history at the time – could please be returned to the defendant. The money, the CIA said, wasn’t part of a drug operation; it belonged to the Contras. According to CIA cables released as part of the report, “The United States Attorney was most deferential to our interests”.

The Justice Department report, meanwhile, delayed for months because of an “ongoing investigation”, was finally released in July. Its scope was limited to finding out whether any Justice Department investigations or prosecutions were affected by the supposed connections between the CIA, the Contras, and drugs. It agreed with the CIA: The intelligence agency had intervened in a drug case in the US on behalf of the Contras.

But the most shocking new revelation doesn’t appear in any report. Rather, it came up during CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz’s presentation to Congress of the first CIA volume.

During his testimony, Hitz revealed for the first time a very special agreement that the CIA had with the Justice Department: The CIA did not have to report if its non-employee agents, paid or unpaid, were dealing drugs. The secret agreement, which remained in place from 1982 to 1995 (when Janet Reno rescinded it), was not mentioned in the CIA report, nor was a copy made public; Representative Maxine Waters (Democrat, California) later obtained a copy of the agreement and provided it to the MoJo Wire (see “A Tainted Deal”).

In other words, it wasn’t just incompetence or lack of interest that led the CIA to ignore the fact that their operatives were dealing drugs: It was policy. Almost no major media reported the existence of this agreement. The only exception was The Washington Post, which mentioned the agreement on Page A12, in the sixth paragraph of a five-hundred-word story.

The second volume of the CIA report is still classified, and according to the CIA, there are no plans to release it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get a peek. Remember that The New York Times article mentioned at the very start of this story?

The article, written by James Risen, relies on an unnamed source for information about the second CIA report; it is unclear whether Risen saw the report himself. When the MoJo Wire called Risen to ask whether he saw the report or relied on a source to describe it to him, Risen said he’d “rather not say”.

The story summarizes the report by saying, “no clear guidelines [were] given to field officers about how extensively they should investigate [drug] allegations”. What the story never mentions, inexplicably, is the one set of clear guidelines that have been reported: The agreement between the CIA and the Justice Department that said the CIA didn’t have to report its operatives, even when it knew they were guilty of drug-running.


Eric Umansky is a deputy managing editor of ProPublica.

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US Declines to Probe Afghan Drug Trade

by James Rupert and Steve Coll

The Washington Post (May 13 1990)

The US government has for several years received, but declined to investigate, reports of heroin trafficking by some Afghan guerrillas and Pakistani military officers with whom it cooperates in the war against Soviet influence in Afghanistan, according to US officials and Afghans.

Afghans, including mujaheddin guerrillas, have given US officials firsthand accounts of heroin smuggling by commanders under Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a guerrilla leader with close ties to the Pakistani military who until recently was the foreign minister of the guerrilla-declared, US-backed Afghan Interim Government. Officers of Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (“ISI”), protect and participate in the trafficking, according to the sources, who were interviewed in Pakistan and Washington.

While the lack of investigations has prevented the United States from pursuing legal action against any such drug suspects, the administration has tried to combat the trade in other ways. In one sensitive effort, senior US Embassy officials in Pakistan met last autumn with a powerful mujaheddin commander, Nassim Akhundzada, and persuaded him to halt opium production in this part of Afghanistan in exchange for US consideration of development aid for the area. The commander, who cut cultivation of opium poppies significantly, was assassinated in Pakistan last month.

Publicly, the Bush administration has conceded only that some mujaheddin commanders individually may condone opium production and has denied involvement by the Afghan Interim Government. US and ISI officials declined to comment publicly on allegations of trafficking by Pakistani military officers. A spokesman for Hekmatyar, Nawab Salim, denied involvement in drug trafficking by his group or its commanders, over whom he said the leadership kept strict control.

Many reports of the heroin trade have been supplied by intelligence sources who are regarded by US officials as generally reliable, and US drug enforcement officials take the reports seriously.

Nevertheless, according to US officials, the United States has failed to investigate or take action against some of those suspected in part because of its desire not to offend a strategic ally, Pakistan’s military establishment. Also, since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, US narcotics policy in Afghanistan has been subordinated to the war against Soviet influence there, especially under the Reagan administration.

Despite years of rumors and reports about drug trafficking by mujaheddin and ISI, “there has been very little debate” on the issue among the executive agencies responsible for setting US policy, said a US official who, like most of those interviewed, requested anonymity. “It has been terribly frustrating for the Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) and others (concerned about the heroin trade) to weave narcotics matters more closely into general policy” in Afghanistan, said a senior US diplomat.

Afghans in Pakistan have given US officials accounts of extensive heroin smuggling by commanders under Hekmatyar, who has received tens of millions of dollars in US weapons and supplies over the years. ISI, which favors Hekmatyar over the other Afghan guerrilla leaders, has funneled the largest share of outside aid for the Afghans to Hekmatyar’s Islamic Party.

According to these accounts, Hekmatyar commanders close to ISI run laboratories in southwestern Pakistan, buying raw opium gum brought over the border from Afghanistan and cooking it down into morphine and then heroin. The heroin is smuggled out via Pakistani airports and ports – mostly those of the city of Karachi – or via an overland route through Iran to Turkey, the Balkans, and Europe, the sources said.

ISI cooperates in heroin operations, according to the Afghan accounts given to US officials.

In Pakistan’s southwestern province, Baluchistan, the Pakistani military effectively shares authority with tribal leaders. ISI and army officers control the few passable roads across the border from Afghanistan, notably the roads leading to the town of Rabat, a drug smuggling center in the southwestern corner of Afghanistan bordering on Iran and Pakistan.

The army registers travelers and inspects cargoes traveling on such roads and controls the border areas where the laboratories are located. ISI runs mujaheddin training camps in the Koh-i-Soltan region, near where the laboratories are concentrated, the sources said.

Afghans who travel frequently in Nassim’s territory in Helmand province and US officials said Nassim sent most of his opium south to the laboratories in southwestern Pakistan, where the Pakistani army and tribal leaders share local authority.

One Afghan who said he had seen drug operations told of a Pakistani policeman friend who complained that army officers sometimes forced police to release Afghans involved in the heroin trade after their arrests on weapons or other charges. The source said he had given such accounts directly to US officials.

Baluchistan’s governor, Mohammad Akbar Khan Bugti, a tribal nationalist often at odds with the Pakistani army, said in an interview that frontier guards, army officers, and ISI all were involved in heroin and hashish smuggling from Afghanistan. “They deliver drugs under their own bayonets”, he said.

Bugti said corrupt military officers had tipped off heroin manufacturers near Koh-i-Soltan about a raid last year that was assisted by the US DEA. The raid turned up only a kilogram of heroin (2.2 pounds) after reports that large-scale manufacturing was underway in the area.

ISI’s spokesman declined to comment on charges of drug involvement by the agency.

In addition to the direct reports of ISI involvement, a general picture of the operation – drawn from US government reports and interviews with US drug enforcement officials and Afghans – raises the question of whether such large-scale heroin producers could thrive without the awareness or cooperation of ISI. In 1989, Afghanistan was second only to Myanmar (formerly Burma) as a producer of opium, growing 650 tons, nearly all of which was intended for heroin manufacturing, a State Department report said.

More than 250 tons of that opium – nearly three times the amount produced in Mexico last year – was grown in Helmand province, where Nassim was responsible for most of the production. Nassim was referred to locally as the “King of Heroin” after he fought a two-year war with one of Hekmatyar’s commanders for control of the region’s opium fields, according to Afghans and US officials. He was associated with a mujaheddin faction opposed to Hekmatyar.

Some Afghans interviewed said they had told US officials of drug operations by Hekmatyar and agents of ISI, but said the officials seemed to ignore the information.

A US official agreed that US intelligence agencies and the State Department have avoided issues of corruption and drug operations – especially where they appeared to implicate ISI. “I think that every year, when our intelligence priorities are formulated, that has been left aside”, the official said.

US officials acknowledged that the United States plays down reports of narcotics trafficking by ISI and the Afghan mujaheddin, saying this has been partly for lack of evidence and partly because of the political sensitivity of exposing illegal activities by allies of the US effort to oust Afghanistan’s Soviet-backed government. “You can’t look at (the narcotics trafficking) in a vacuum separated from the overall policy”, the official said.

Felix Jimenez, DEA’s chief heroin investigator, praised the Pakistani government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto for increasing drug seizures and cooperating with US interdiction efforts. But while US officials credited Bhutto with good intentions, they said she lacked either the political will or the means to confront powerful drug interests within the military and in the largely autonomous tribes of Pakistan’s western border region.

Selig S Harrison, a senior analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, stressed that involvement in drug corruption extends beyond ISI and throughout the military structure, which rivals Bhutto for effective control in Pakistan. “You have about ten Noriegas … very high up in the military”, Harrison said, referring to the ousted Panamanian ruler, “and it’s difficult to name names”.

The United States has told the mujaheddin it will give no help to those who trade in drugs, but officials acknowledged that the United States has only limited control over arms distribution, which is handled by ISI and partly funded by Saudi Arabia.

Last fall, officials said, the administration tried to cut Afghan opium production by negotiating with Nassim. Senior embassy officials in Pakistan proposed the talks to Washington after Nassim offered to halt poppy farming in exchange for money.

“There was a debate with … by-the-book people” in Washington, the official said. Washington feared that the negotiations might be seen as a violation of Bush’s 1988 campaign declaration that he would “never bargain with drug dealers on US or foreign soil”, a reference to dealings by previous administrations with Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega.

The embassy officials met three times with Nassim last fall to discuss poppy cultivation in his territory and turned down a request by Nassim for cash, reportedly as much as $2 million, in exchange for an effort to reduce opium production. The Americans told Nassim he had to prove his willingness to halt poppy production before any discussion of development aid for his area could begin, officials said. While one official said the US made a hard promise of development aid in exchange for a halt in poppy cultivation, others said the promise was simply to consider assistance via a US Agency for International Development (“AID”) program. Nassim apparently held to his agreement to halt poppy production. Three monitoring teams sent to the region in January and February by AID reported poppy production substantially down. As a result, the price of heroin reportedly tripled in the Baluchistan border areas this spring.

Nassim’s decision drastically reduced the amount of opium available to the Baluchistan heroin labs allegedly controlled by Hekmatyar’s commanders, and some Afghans have speculated that Hekmatyar ordered Nassim killed as a way of protecting his operation. An Afghan arrested at the scene of the killing has said he is affiliated with Hekmatyar, according to Afghans and US sources. Others suggested that Nassim may have been killed in revenge for his military defeat of Hekmatyar’s commanders in Helmand three years ago or for urging commanders in Afghanistan to break away from Pakistan-based leaders such as Hekmatyar.

With Nassim now dead, the Helmand opium valleys again are up for grabs. Afghans say the leading contenders are Nassim’s brother, Mohammed Rasul, and commanders affiliated with Hekmatyar. Forces loyal to Rasul and Hekmatyar have clashed violently in recent weeks in southern Helmand, along the main opium routes, according to mujaheddin sources in Quetta, Pakistan.


Coll reported this story in Pakistan and Rupert in Washington.

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A Nation Challenged

War and Drugs; Afghan Ban on Growing of Opium is Unraveling

by Tim Golden

The New York Times (October 22 2001)

A highly successful government ban on the growing of opium poppies in Afghanistan, which had been by far the biggest source of opium in the world, has begun to unravel as the United States presses its war against the ruling Taliban, American and United Nations officials say.

Reports from Afghanistan received last week by the United Nations show that farmers are planting or preparing to plant opium poppies in at least two important growing areas. Recent American intelligence reports also suggest that the year-old ban may be eroding as the military assault continues, United States officials said.

“They may have told people they can plant, they may tell people nothing and allow them to plant, or there may be enough chaos with the war that it won’t matter what the Taliban says”, said the State Department’s senior official for international narcotics issues, R. Rand Beers. “We had a situation that showed promise that is now headed in absolutely the wrong direction”.

Even a wholesale collapse of the ban might not have an immediate impact on the availability and price of opium and heroin, one of its derivatives, in illegal drug markets around the world.

A continued flow of opium from stockpiles inside Afghanistan has so far kept the prices of those drugs stable in Europe, and officials expect those reserves to last for perhaps another year.

But after paying relatively little attention to the problem in recent years, American officials are now closely focused on Afghanistan’s drug trade, saying that taxes on farmers and traders have become a crucial source of revenue for the Taliban and that drug money may be used to finance terrorist activities.

“The urgency has increased”, the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”), Asa Hutchinson, said in an interview.

The challenge that Washington now faces is, in some part, of its own making. In the 1980s opium production flourished in Afghanistan with the involvement of some of the mujahedeen, rebels who were supported by the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”).

In the 1990’s, as the country’s poppy fields expanded, the United States refused to deal with the Taliban government and focused its drug control efforts in other regions that were thought to be supplying greater amounts of drugs to American markets.

“It’s something that just wasn’t on our radar screen”, a senior American official said of Afghanistan’s drug trade. “That heroin wasn’t coming this way – it was mostly going to Europe. We were worried about other things going on in Afghanistan, and we didn’t want to deal with the Taliban.”

While some officials suggest that American military forces might now try to target caches of opium stored around Afghanistan, others acknowledge privately that they have scant information about where those caches might be.

More broadly, American officials admit that they have poor intelligence about the makeup and operations of Afghanistan’s drug trafficking organizations and know even less about how those groups might be linked to Osama bin Laden or other suspected terrorists.

Although opium has been produced in Afghanistan for centuries, it began to boom after the Soviet invasion in 1979. Often, officials said, the convoys of donkeys and trucks that smuggled arms to the mujahideen returned to Pakistan with raw opium, sometimes with the assent of the Pakistani or American intelligence officers who supported the resistance.

From there the drug was usually converted to morphine base or smuggled to Turkey to be refined into heroin.

When the Pakistani government began cracking down on the trade in the 1990s, some opium farmers and traffickers whose tribes straddled the border simply moved their operations into Afghanistan.

By the early 1990s, Afghanistan was starting to approach the opium output of Myanmar, the world’s largest producer. As the Taliban swept across Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, American officials hoped initially that they would be allies in the drug fight because intoxicants are condemned by Islam. But that did not happen, in part because opium was such a good cash crop.

“At first we thought they would be good for our purposes because they were so strict”, said a drug enforcement official who dealt with Afghanistan during the first years of the Taliban’s Islamic rule and spoke on condition of anonymity. “But the problem just grew, because it was such a good cash crop and they were in such dire straits economically”.

For its own part, the Drug Enforcement Administration was shifting some of its resources away from the region. In 1997 a study by the agency found that although Afghanistan and Pakistan were still the sources of about twenty percent of the heroin seized in East Coast cities, nearly three-fourths of the market there was being supplied by Colombia and Mexico. The next year, with the dangers to American drug agents rising, the agency decided to close two of its four offices in Pakistan.

“We decided we didn’t care about Afghanistan, because it didn’t affect the shores of the United States”, a senior American official said. “We were wrong”.

In 1997 the Taliban pledged a one-third reduction in poppy cultivation and pleaded for development aid to the affected farmers. But the ban was not enforced, and very little foreign aid was forthcoming.

The United States and European governments were appalled by the Taliban’s human rights record, and drugs were a second-tier interest.

The United Nations drug control program used modest development projects to reduce poppy cultivation in a few small areas of Afghanistan, and the United States contributed $3.2 million to the effort over five years. By comparison, it spent $4.2 million this year in Laos, the world’s third-largest opium producer, and will spend $399 million next year to fight drug trafficking in Colombia.

American officials had ample reason to be skeptical. In 1997 the poppy fields stretched over 144,345 acres, a United Nations survey found.

Two years later the figure was 224,819 acres.

The trade was a vital source of revenue for the impoverished Taliban government. Local Taliban officials took a ten percent tax from poppy growers, as they did from other farmers, and an Islamic tax of as much as twenty percent on opium traders and transporters. Some warlords aligned with the opposition Northern Alliance were also deeply involved in the trade, United States officials said.

In 1998 and 1999, United States intelligence data also revealed that larger laboratories for refining opium into morphine base and heroin were popping up in areas where they could exist only with the Taliban’s assent, several American officials said. As the opium output rose, Afghanistan was processing more of its own heroin to supply newer markets in Eastern Europe and Russia, Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asia.

When the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, decreed a complete ban on poppy growing in July 2000, few foreign drug officials expected any results. That year, according to CIA estimates, the country’s opium output surged to 4,042 tons, accounting for about seventy percent of the opium produced in the world. United Nations figures were slightly lower.

But within two months, officials discovered that the poppy ban had been astonishingly effective, cutting Afghanistan’s production to 81.6 tons, most of it from poppies grown in the roughly ten percent of the country under Northern Alliance control.

Although opium prices soared inside Afghanistan – leading some foreign officials to suspect a Taliban ploy to increase their revenues – a steady flow of opium from stockpiles that are largely controlled by autonomous traffickers along the country’s borders kept the availability of heroin high and the price low in Europe.

Since last month there have been conflicting reports about whether the ban would stand. But on Friday, the head of the United Nations drug control program for the region, Bernard Frahi, said he had just received reports from Afghanistan that poppy fields had been prepared for planting in the southwestern province of Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold, and that planting had already begun in some parts of Nangarhar, another important poppy-growing province.

United States officials said intelligence reports indicated that Taliban officials in some areas had signaled an end to the ban.

“In a period of uncertainty, when farmers have lost two-thirds of their income by switching to wheat, when there are no alternative development programs, the farmers will grow opium”, Mr Frahi said in a telephone interview from Islamabad.

(c) 2017 The New York Times Company

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The CIA Drug Connection is as Old as the Agency

by Larry Collins

The New York Times (December 03 1993)

Recent news item: The Justice Department is investigating allegations that officers of a special Venezuelan anti-drug unit funded by the CIA smuggled more than 2,000 pounds of cocaine into the United States with the knowledge of CIA officials – despite protests by the Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”), the organization responsible for enforcing US drug laws.

That is a huge amount of cocaine. But it was hardly a first for the CIA. The agency has never been above using individuals or organizations with known links to drug trafficking if it thought they could help it further its national security mission.

Let us put the Venezuelan case in context: To protect its “assets” abroad, the CIA has ensured that the DEA’s concerns outside the country were subordinated to its own. Until recently, no DEA country attache overseas was allowed to initiate an investigation into a suspected drug trafficker or attempt to recruit an informant without clearance from the local CIA station chief. DEA country attaches are required to employ the standard State Department cipher, and all their transmissions are made available to the CIA station chief. The CIA also has access to all DEA investigative reports and informants’ and targets’ identities when DEA activities outside the United States were involved.

In Costa Rica, when the war against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government was at its peak and cocaine was beginning to pour into the United States, the DEA attache wanted to place cameras at clandestine airstrips from which he suspected drugs were being flown to the United States. The CIA resident gave him a list of airstrips on which he was not to place cameras. They were the strips into which the CIA was flying arms for the contras. Some were also strips from which the DEA agent suspected drugs were being flown to the United States.

Shortly after the kidnapping and brutal murder of the DEA’s Enrique Camarena in Mexico, Francis Mullen, the DEA administrator, was taken by the CIA station chief in Mexico City to Mexico’s director of federal security, a man who, the station chief confided, was a CIA asset. The gentleman, Mr Mullen told me, denied any knowledge of the affair. He was lying. A DEA investigation revealed that he had been connected – a man on the CIA payroll, no less – to the murder of a US federal agent.

CIA ties to international drug trafficking date to the Korean War. In 1949, two of Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated generals, Li Wen Huan and Tuan Shi-Wen, marched their Third and Fifth Route armies, with families and livestock, across the mountains to northern Burma. Once installed, the peasant soldiers began cultivating the crop they knew best, the opium poppy.

When China entered the Korean War, the CIA had a desperate need for intelligence on that nation. The agency turned to the warlord generals, who agreed to slip some soldiers back into China. In return, the agency offered arms. Officially, the arms were intended to equip the warlords for a return to China. In fact, the Chinese wanted them to repel any attack by the Burmese.

Soon intelligence began to flow to Washington from the area, which became known as the Golden Triangle. So, too, did heroin, en route to Southeast Asia and often to the United States.

If the agency never condoned the traffic, it never tried to stop it, either. The CIA did, however, lobby the Eisenhower administration to prevent the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (“BNDD”), the DEA’s predecessor, from establishing monitoring posts in the area to study the traffic. Today, the Golden Triangle accounts for about half the heroin in circulation in the world.

During the Vietnam War, operations in Laos were largely a CIA responsibility. The agency’s surrogate there was a Laotian general, Vang Pao, who commanded Military Region Two in northern Laos. He enlisted 30,000 Hmong tribesmen in the service of the CIA.

These tribesmen continued to grow, as they had for generations, the opium poppy. Before long, someone – there were unproven allegations that it was a Mafia family from Florida – had established a heroin refining lab in Region Two. The lab’s production was soon being ferried out on the planes of the CIA’s front airline, Air America.

A pair of BNDD agents tried to seize an Air America DC-3 loaded with heroin packed into boxes of Tide soap powder. At the CIA’s behest, they were ordered to release the plane and drop the inquiry.

The CIA was made officially aware of Manuel Antonio Noriega’s involvement in the drug traffic in 1972 when Mr Noriega was chief of intelligence of the Panama National Guard, and a promising CIA asset. The BNDD found evidence that Mr Noriega was taking payoffs for allowing heroin to flow from Spain, through Panama City airport, and on to the United States. That information was part of a lengthy file on Mr Noriega compiled by Jack Ingersoll, then chief of the BNDD.

Mr Ingersoll was aware of Mr Noriega’s ties to the CIA, as was President Richard Nixon. When Mr Nixon ordered Mr Ingersoll to Panama to warn the country’s military dictator, General Omar Torrijos, about the activities of Mr Noriega and General Torrijos’s brother Moises, Mr Ingersoll hoped that law enforcement was finally “beginning to get the upper hand in its ongoing struggle with the CIA”. He was wrong. The Watergate break-in occurred shortly after his visit. Mr Nixon needed CIA support; his enthusiasm for the drug war evaporated. Mr Ingersoll’s successors at the newly formed DEA – Peter Bensinger, Francis Mullen, and John Lawn – all told me they never saw his file, although they had asked to see everything the DEA had on Mr Noriega. The material has disappeared.

Shortly after General Torrijos’s death in a mysterious airplane crash, Mr Noriega, with CIA assistance, took command of the Panama National Guard.

No one in the Reagan administration was prepared to do anything about the Noriega drug connection. As Norman Bailley, a National Security Council staff member at the time, told me, “The CIA and the Pentagon were resolutely opposed to acting on that knowledge, because they were a hell of a lot more worried about trying to keep Panama on our side with reference to Nicaragua than they were about drugs”. Nowhere, however, was the CIA more closely tied to drug traffic than it was in Pakistan during the Afghan War. As its principal conduit for arms and money to the Afghan guerrillas, the agency chose the Pakistan military’s Inter-Services Intelligence Bureau (“ISI”). The ISI, in turn, steered the CIA’s support toward Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Islamic fundamentalist. Mr Hekmatyar received almost half of the agency’s financial support during the war, and his fighters were valiant and effective. But many of his commanders were also major heroin traffickers.

As it had in Laos, the heroin traffic blossomed in the shadows of a CIA-sustained guerrilla war. Soon the trucks that delivered arms to the guerrillas in Afghanistan were coming back down the Khyber Pass full of heroin.

The conflict and its aftermath have given the world another Golden Triangle: the Golden Crescent, sweeping through Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of the former Soviet Union. Many of those involved in the drug traffic are men who were once armed, trained, and financed by the CIA.


The writer’s latest book, Black Eagles (1996), deals with the CIA, cocaine traffic and Central America in the mid-1980s. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

Copyright 2017 The New York Times Company

Categories: Uncategorized

The Real Drug Lords

A Brief History of CIA Involvement in the Drug Trade

by William Blum (2001)

1947 to 1951, France

According to Alfred W McCoy in The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (1972), CIA arms, money, and disinformation enabled Corsican criminal syndicates in Marseille to wrestle control of labor unions from the Communist Party. The Corsicans gained political influence and control over the docks – ideal conditions for cementing a long-term partnership with mafia drug distributors, which turned Marseille into the postwar heroin capital of the Western world. Marseille’s first heroin laboratories were opened in 1951, only months after the Corsicans took over the waterfront.

Early 1950s, Southeast Asia

The Nationalist Chinese army, organized by the CIA to wage war against Communist China, became the opium barons of The Golden Triangle (parts of Burma, Thailand, and Laos), the world’s largest source of opium and heroin. Air America, the ClA’s principal airline proprietary, flew the drugs all over Southeast Asia. (See Christopher Robbins, Air America, 1985, chapter 9.)

1950s to early 1970s, Indochina

During US military involvement in Laos and other parts of Indochina, Air America flew opium and heroin throughout the area. Many GIs in Vietnam became addicts. A laboratory built at CIA headquarters in northern Laos was used to refine heroin. After a decade of American military intervention, Southeast Asia had become the source of seventy percent of the world’s illicit opium and the major supplier of raw materials for America’s booming heroin market.

1973 to 1980, Australia

The Nugan Hand Bank of Sydney was a CIA bank in all but name. Among its officers were a network of US generals, admirals and CIA men, including former CIA Director William Colby, who was also one of its lawyers. With branches in Saudi Arabia, Europe, Southeast Asia, South America, and the US, Nugan Hand Bank financed drug trafficking, money laundering, and international arms dealings. In 1980, amidst several mysterious deaths, the bank collapsed, $50 million in debt. (See Jonathan Kwitny, The Crimes of Patriots: A True Tale of Dope, Dirty Money and the CIA, 1987.)

1970s and 1980s, Panama

For more than a decade, Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega was a highly paid CIA asset and collaborator, despite knowledge by US drug authorities as early as 1971 that the general was heavily involved in drug trafficking and money laundering. Noriega facilitated “guns-for-drugs” flights for the contras, providing protection and pilots, as well as safe havens for drug cartel officials, and discreet banking facilities. US officials, including then-CIA Director William Webster and several DEA officers, sent Noriega letters of praise for efforts to thwart drug trafficking (albeit only against competitors of his Medellin Cartel patrons). The US government only turned against Noriega, invading Panama in December 1989 and kidnapping the general, once they discovered he was providing intelligence and services to the Cubans and Sandinistas. Ironically drug trafficking through Panama increased after the US invasion. (John Dinges, Our Man in Panama, 1991; National Security Archive Documentation Packet The Contras, Cocaine, and Covert Operations.)

1980s, Central America

The San Jose Mercury News series documents just one thread of the interwoven operations linking the CIA, the contras, and the cocaine cartels. Obsessed with overthrowing the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua, Reagan administration officials tolerated drug trafficking as long as the traffickers gave support to the contras. In 1989, the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations (the Kerry committee) concluded a three-year investigation by stating:

There was substantial evidence of drug smuggling through the war zones on the part of individual Contras, Contra suppliers, Contra pilots mercenaries who worked with the Contras, and Contra supporters throughout the region … US officials involved in Central America failed to address the drug issue for fear of jeopardizing the war efforts against Nicaragua … In each case, one or another agency of the US government had information regarding the involvement either while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter…. Senior US policymakers were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect solution to the Contras’ funding problems.

– Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy, a Report of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations, 1989


In Costa Rica, which served as the “Southern Front” for the contras (Honduras being the Northern Front), there were several different CIA-contra networks involved in drug trafficking. In addition to those servicing the Meneses-Blandon operation detailed by the Mercury News, and Noriega’s operation, there was CIA operative John Hull, whose farms along Costa Rica’s border with Nicaragua were the main staging area for the contras. Hull and other CIA-connected Contra supporters and pilots teamed up with George Morales, a major Miami-based Colombian drug trafficker who later admitted to giving $3 million in cash and several planes to Contra leaders. In 1989, after the Costa Rica government indicted Hull for drug trafficking, a DEA-hired plane clandestinely and illegally flew the CIA operative to Miami, via Haiti. The US repeatedly thwarted Costa Rican efforts to extradite Hull back to Costa Rica to stand trial.

Another Costa Rican-based drug ring involved a group of Cuban Americans whom the CIA had hired as military trainers for the contras. Many had long been involved with the CIA and drug trafficking They used Contra planes and a Costa Rican-based shrimp company, which laundered money for the CIA, to move cocaine to the US.

Costa Rica was not the only route. Guatemala, whose military intelligence service – closely associated with the CIA – harbored many drug traffickers, according to the DEA, was another way station along the cocaine highway. Additionally, the Medellin Cartel’s Miami accountant, Ramon Milian Rodriguez, testified that he funneled nearly $10 million to Nicaraguan contras through long-time CIA operative Felix Rodriguez, who was based at Ilopango Air Force Base in El Salvador.

The contras provided both protection and infrastructure (planes, pilots, airstrips, warehouses, front companies, and banks) to these CIA-linked drug networks. At least four transport companies under investigation for drug trafficking received US government contracts to carry non-lethal supplies to the contras. Southern Air Transport, “formerly” CIA-owned, and later under Pentagon contract, was involved in the drug running as well. Cocaine-laden planes flew to Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and other locations, including several military bases. Designated as “Contra Craft”, these shipments were not to be inspected. When some authority wasn’t clued in and made an arrest, powerful strings were pulled on behalf of dropping the case, acquittal, reduced sentence, or deportation.

1980s to early 1990s, Afghanistan

CIA-supported Mujahedeen rebels [now, 2001, part of the “Northern Alliance”] engaged heavily in drug trafficking while fighting against the Soviet-supported government and its plans to reform the very backward Afghan society. The Agency’s principal client was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the leading druglords and a leading heroin refiner. CIA-supplied trucks and mules, which had carried arms into Afghanistan, were used to transport opium to laboratories along the Afghan/Pakistan border. The output provided up to one half of the heroin used annually in the United States and three-quarters of that used in Western Europe. US officials admitted in 1990 that they had failed to investigate or take action against the drug operation because of a desire not to offend their Pakistani and Afghan allies. In 1993, an official of the DEA called Afghanistan the new Colombia of the drug world.

Mid-1980s to early 199Os, Haiti

While working to keep key Haitian military and political leaders in power, the CIA turned a blind eye to their clients’ drug trafficking. In 1986, the Agency added some more names to its payroll by creating a new Haitian organization, the National Intelligence Service (“SIN”). SIN was purportedly created to fight the cocaine trade, though SIN officers themselves engaged in the trafficking, a trade aided and abetted by some of the Haitian military and political leaders.


William Blum is the author of Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War Two (1995) and other books. You can subscribe to his monthly blog The Anti-Empire Report at or

Categories: Uncategorized

Into the Afghan Abyss (Again)

How a Failed Drug War Will Defeat Trump’s Afghan Adventure

by Alfred W McCoy

TomDispatch (November 12 2017)

After nine months of confusion, chaos, and cascading tweets, Donald Trump’s White House has finally made one thing crystal clear: the US is staying in Afghanistan to fight and – so they insist – win. “The killers need to know they have nowhere to hide, that no place is beyond the reach of American might”, said the president in August, trumpeting his virtual declaration of war on the Taliban. Overturning Barack Obama’s planned (and stalled) drawdown in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced that the Pentagon would send 4,000 more soldiers to fight there, bringing American troop strength to nearly 15,000.

In October, as that new mini-escalation was ramping up, the CIA leaked to The New York Times news of a complementary covert surge with lethal drone strikes and “highly experienced” Agency paramilitary teams being dispatched to “hunt and kill” Taliban guerrillas, both ordinary fighters and top officials. “This is unforgiving, relentless”, intoned CIA Director Mike Pompeo, promising a wave of extrajudicial killings reminiscent of the Agency’s notorious Phoenix Program during the Vietnam War. CIA paramilitary officers, reported the Times, will lead Special Forces operatives, both Afghan and American, in expanded counterterrorism operations that, in the past, “have been accused of indiscriminately killing Afghan civilians”. In short, it’s game on in Afghanistan.

After sixteen years of continuous war in that country, the obvious question is: Does this new campaign have any realistic chance of success, no less victory? To answer that, another question must be asked: How has the Taliban managed to expand in recent years despite intensive US operations and a massive air campaign, as well as the endless and endlessly expensive training of Afghan security forces? After all, the Afghan War is not only the longest in US history but also one of the largest, peaking at 101,000 American troops in the country during President Obama’s surge of 2010 and 2011.

Thinking About the Taliban

Americans have been hearing about the Taliban for so long that most fail to appreciate just how relentless that movement’s growth has been in recent years. In the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, the Bush White House unleashed a lethal combination of US airpower and CIA-funded Afghan warlords to crush the fundamentalist Taliban and capture the Afghan capital, Kabul, with stunning speed. Not only was that Islamist movement and its government defeated, but it lost so many dedicated militants to those devastating air attacks that it was seemingly smashed beyond repair or revival. Nonetheless, within five years, the Taliban was back in force, already fielding 25,000 fighters. By 2015, it was in control of more than half the countryside, had captured district capitals, and was even pounding at the gates of major provincial cities like Kunduz.

As with any movement, there are multiple reasons for the Taliban’s success, including the failure of the government in Kabul – a cesspit of corruption – to deliver anything like rural prosperity, the country’s martial tradition of fighting foreign occupiers, and Pakistan’s sub-rosa support, as well as the wide-open sanctuaries in its tribal backlands along the Afghan border. But there is one other factor, more fundamental than all the rest: the opium poppy.

The Taliban guerrillas are, like many insurgent armies, largely made up of teenagers who fight, at least in part, for cash to feed their families. Every spring for the past fifteen years, as snow melts from mountain slopes across that country, new crops of such teenage recruits emerge from impoverished villages ready to take up arms for the rebel cause. Each of them reportedly makes at least $300 a month, far more than they could possibly hope to earn from the usual agricultural wages. In other words, it takes an estimated $90 million in salaries alone for the Taliban to field its 25,000 strong guerrilla army for a single fighting season. With an overall budget approaching a billion dollars annually, the cost of the insurgency’s fifteen-year war rings in at something close to $15 billion.

So where, in that impoverished, arid land, has the Taliban been getting nearly a billion dollars a year? According to the US commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, a single Afghan province, Helmand, “produces a significant amount of the opium globally that turns into heroin and … provides about sixty percent of the Taliban funding”. The country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official, agrees. “Without drugs”, he’s said, “this war would have been long over. The heroin is a very important driver of this war.”

The Taliban’s rise has paralleled the relentless growth of Afghanistan’s opium production from a mere 185 tons when the US invaded in October 2001 to a still-unequalled yield of 8,200 tons in 2008, a harvest that provided an unprecedented 53% of the country’s gross domestic product and 93% of the world’s illicit heroin supply. That same year, the UN stated that Taliban guerrillas were extracting “from the drug economy resources for arms, logistics, and militia pay”. A study for the US Institute of Peace also found that, in 2009, the Taliban already had fifty heroin labs in its territory and controlled 98% of the country’s poppy fields, collecting $425 million in “taxes” levied on the opium traffic.

By the time Obama’s 2010 surge segued into an exit strategy four years later, observers were unanimous in their assessment that opium had become central to the Taliban’s survival. Despite a succession of “drug eradication” programs sponsored and funded by Washington, the Pentagon’s Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John Sopko, concluded in 2014 that,

by every conceivable metric, we’ve failed. Production and cultivation are up, interdiction and eradication are down, financial support to the insurgency is up, and addiction and abuse are at unprecedented levels in Afghanistan.


The 2013 opium crop covered a record area of 209,000 hectares, bringing the harvest back up to a substantial 5,500 tons. This massive crop generated some $3 billion in illicit income, of which the Taliban’s tax alone took an estimated $320 million – almost half that movement’s revenues. The US Embassy corroborated this dismal assessment, calling the illicit income “a windfall for the insurgency, which profits from the drug trade at almost every level”.

The Failure of Antinarcotics Efforts

As 2017 ends, with the White House poised for another four-year plunge into the Afghan abyss, has anything changed that might weaken the Taliban and so spare Washington from a defeat foretold? To answer this question, John Sopko has been armed with a Congressional mandate to probe all forms of failure there and already has five years of experience in this difficult mission. Recently, he drafted a scathing review of Washington’s failed fifteen-year effort to reduce Afghan opium production and thereby defeat the Taliban. This 150-page draft report, “Counternarcotics: Lessons from Afghanistan, 2002~2016”, depicts a drug-policy disaster only likely to ensure an ever-increasing income for the Taliban to fight an endless war. When read in tandem with the UN’s annual opium surveys, Sopko provides ample evidence that Trump’s decision to double down in that country is almost certainly doomed to failure.

Over the past fifteen years, all counter-narcotics efforts by the US, Great Britain, and the UN have failed to slow the country’s drug production. “Opium remains the country’s most valuable cash crop”, says Sopko, “worth around $3 billion per year at border prices”. It provides, he adds, “up to 411,000 full-time equivalent jobs, more than the number of people employed by the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces”.

Despite the expenditure of nearly $9 billion on its counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan, Washington has presided over what Sopko calls a “dramatic expansion of opium poppy cultivation from less than 8,000 hectares grown in 2001 to 200,000 hectares in 2016”. By then, the opium crop represented more than two-thirds of the country’s agricultural output. Meanwhile, eleven percent of the population is now estimated to be using illicit drugs, one of the world’s highest addiction rates.

The UN’s crop survey for 2016, compiled by hundreds of Afghan enumerators who regularly walked through the poppy fields – and corroborated by sophisticated satellite imagery – adds yet more somber strokes to this picture. That year, at 5,600 tons the opium harvest was again up substantially (by 43%). In the same period, opium eradication efforts fell by 91% to a mere 355 hectares of the crop destroyed or less than two percent of all illegal poppy fields in the country.

Since the start of its intervention in 2001, Washington and its drug war allies have tried every possible counter-narcotics option. All, without exception, have failed. The bulk of the US budget ($4.3 billion) was allocated to interdiction efforts, but ample funds were left for more experimental approaches, none of which seem to have worked.

As much as Washington’s drug policies failed, the UN efforts were, in Inspector Sopko’s view, even less effective. During the first decade following its 2001 invasion, Washington was obsessed with counterterror operations and so outsourced the drug war to others. It delegated opium suppression to the British and police training for interdiction to the Germans. In this critical period, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (“UNODC”) maneuvered to fill the leadership void.

In what was then seen as a clever political gambit, the UN argued, according to Sopko’s report, that “it was necessary to destroy 25 percent of the standing poppy crop each year in order to deter future planting”, in the process justifying the employment of thousands of Afghan peasants to pull up poppy plants. Defending that crop suppression program, Antonio Maria Costa, the Soviet-trained Italian economist who then headed UNODC, declared, according to Sopko, “that there was no relationship between poppy cultivation and poverty”. From his high modernist headquarters in Vienna, Costa pledged “to reduce poppy cultivation by seventy percent in five years and eliminate the crop altogether in ten years” – a claim that soon proved laughable.

Near the start of Washington’s Afghan adventure in 2002, the US military, the CIA, and the country’s American-supported president, Hamid Karzai, had little interest in or next to no knowledge of the drug problem. Other actors with far less power – the US embassy in Kabul, the US Drug Enforcement Agency, the World Bank, and the European Commission, among others – all made periodic forays into antinarcotics work. Funds for such operations ebbed and flowed, while new initiatives were regularly launched without significant analysis of or thought about past policies.

In this chaotic process, as Sopko points out,

interdiction efforts failed to fundamentally alter or impact the Afghan drug trade in a meaningful way. In 2017, poppy cultivation and opium production seemed destined to reach a record high and the Taliban continued to derive funding from the drug trade.


A Short-Lived Military Solution

Amid this succession of policy failures, only one program, in Sopko’s view, had a discernible impact on drug production: the launching of a massive occupation of the country’s key southern opium districts by the US military and the Afghans they were training. Checkpoints were set up at almost every road crossing. “In Marjah”, he reports,

located in the opium poppy heartland of Helmand Province, the share of agricultural land dedicated to poppy was almost sixty percent prior to the major influx of US and Afghan forces. After Operation Moshtarak, in which 15,000 US Marines and the ANDSF [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] occupied the district in February 2010, the amount of land dedicated to poppy fell to less than five percent.


By the end of that year, 20,000 Leathernecks in fifty fortified bases, backed by 10,000 British troops, had temporarily wrested control of the province from the Taliban guerrillas and checked the opium traffic that had sustained them.

Apart from their omnipresent checkpoints, the Marines also introduced the Marjah Accelerated Agricultural Transition program. It offered opium farmers an incentive package of cash, wheelbarrows, shovels, new water pumps, and all-important safe-conduct passes to move securely through this war zone. Despite the Taliban’s “night letters … forbidding locals from interacting with coalition forces”, the Marines were encouraged that more than 1,000 local farmers signed up for the program.

In the end, however, it wasn’t sustainable. Four years later in 2014, as American troop levels in the country were beginning to fall, General Daniel Yoo stood before his Marines at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province and announced that they would all soon be heading home, leaving the province’s security in the hands of their Afghan allies. “I am cautiously optimistic that they will be able to sustain themselves”, the general said, “but they’ve got to want it more than we do”.

Within a year, the Taliban were back, stronger than ever. Amid a nationwide offensive, the guerrillas focused, above all, on recapturing the poppy heartlands of Helmand Province, because, as The New York Times put it, “the lucrative opium trade made it crucial to the insurgents’ economic designs”. By December 2015, after overrunning checkpoints and winning back much of the province, they came close to capturing Marjah itself. Had American Special Operations forces and airpower not intervened to relieve “demoralized” Afghan troops and police, the town would undoubtedly have fallen.

Farther north, in the fertile poppy fields astride the Helmand River system, insurgents captured most of Sangin district, forcing the retreat of government soldiers who, hobbled by the endemic corruption of their government and military, were reportedly “fighting with lack of ammunition and on empty stomachs”. By 2016, President Obama was forced to reverse his drawdown and launch a mini-surge of hundreds of new US troops to deny insurgents the economic prize of the world’s most productive poppy fields.

Despite support from American airpower and 700 Special Operations troops, in February and March 2016 embattled government forces retreated from Musa Qala and Khan Neshin, leaving the Taliban largely in control of ten of Helmand’s fourteen districts. After 3,000 government troops died in that Taliban offensive, the remaining demoralized forces hunkered down inside provincial and district capitals, leaving the countryside and the opium crops that went with it to the heroin-funded guerrillas.

In the midst of all that fighting, Helmand’s farmers managed to expand their poppy cultivation to 80,000 hectares by 2016, which represented forty percent of the entire country’s drug production.

Sophisticated Methodology

Not only did this problematic drug war fail to curtail the traffic, but it also alienated the rural residents the government so desperately needed to win over. Worse yet, in the end, it actually encouraged illicit opium production – a frequent outcome in Washington’s worldwide drug war that I once called “the stimulus of prohibition”.

Using sophisticated satellite imagery, Sopko’s team, for example, found a troubling disconnect between areas that received development aid from Washington or its allies and those that were subjected to opium eradication programs. In strategic Helmand and Nangarhar provinces, for instance, satellite photographs clearly reveal that the various drug eradication projects ripped through remote areas where “the population was highly dependent on opium poppy for its livelihoods”, rendering poor farmers destitute. The development aid was, however, lavished on more accessible, largely drug-free districts near major cities elsewhere in Afghanistan, leaving countless thousands of farmers in critical rural areas angry at the government and susceptible to Taliban recruitment.

Even liberal development alternatives to those rip-up-the-poppies programs, claims Sopko, only served to stimulate opium production in surprising ways. The US Agency for International Development (“USAID”), for instance, spent $36 million on irrigation for a showcase Food Zone project, meant to promote the growing of legal crops in southern Kandahar Province. As it happened, though, this important infrastructure program actually turned out to contribute “to rising levels of opium poppy cultivation” – an unintended outcome that could be seen in similar “irrigation projects in provinces like Nangarhar, Badakhshan, and Kunar”.

Next door to Kandahar in central Helmand Province, another Food Zone program initially helped reduce the opium crop by sixty percent. But as British agronomist David Mansfield reports, by the spring of 2017 an “unprecedented” proliferation of poppies covered up to forty percent of the farmland targeted by that project; guerrillas were back in force; and farmers felt, as one put it, that “the Taliban is better than the government; they don’t ban poppy, they just ask for tax”. By now, of course, given all the years of bungled anti-drug programs, Mansfield concludes that the Kabul government has little hope of wresting “back control of central Helmand”.

USAID programs that emphasized increased wheat production proved similarly counterproductive. “With higher-yielding varieties and improved agricultural technologies”, writes Sopko, “households in the well-irrigated central valleys of rural Afghanistan would be able to meet their family wheat requirements with a smaller part of their land”, allowing “a larger area … to be allocated to [the] high-value … opium poppy”.

An Uncertain Future

Corroborating Sopko’s pessimism, a recent report by Mujib Mashal of The New York Times depicted the worsening Afghan drug situation as the product, in part, of Washington’s failed policies. Fueled by a booming opium harvest, the Taliban has recently expanded from poppy growing into large-scale heroin production with an estimated 500 labs refining the drug inside Afghanistan – part of a strategy aimed at capturing a greater share of the $60 billion generated globally by the country’s drug exports.

Out of the whole opium eradication project, the National Interdiction Unit, an Afghan outfit trained by US Special Forces, is more or less what’s left when it comes to hopes for reducing the traffic in drugs. Yet their nighttime helicopter interdiction raids on mobile, readily reconstructed heroin labs are proving futile and their chief, reports Mashal, was recently sacked for “probably leaking information to hostile forces”. US military commanders now realize that local Taliban bosses, enriched by the heroin boom, have nothing to gain from further peace negotiations, which remain the only way of ending this endless war.

Meanwhile, the whole question of opium eradication has, according to Mashal, gotten surprisingly “little attention in the Trump administration’s new strategy for the Afghan war”. It seems that US counter-narcotics officials have come to accept a new reality “with a sense of helplessness” – that the country now supplies 85% of the world’s heroin and there’s no end to this in sight.

So why has America’s ambitious $9 billion counter-narcotics program fallen into failure again and again? When such illegality corrupts a society as thoroughly as opium has Afghanistan, then drug trafficking comes to distort everything – giving even good programs bad outcomes and undoubtedly twisting Trump’s headstrong plans for victory into certain defeat.

Think of the never-ending war in Afghanistan as Washington’s drug of choice of these last sixteen years.


Alfred W McCoy, a TomDispatch regular, is the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of the now-classic book The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade (2003), which probed the conjuncture of illicit narcotics and covert operations over fifty years, and In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power (2017).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power (2017), John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War Two (2017), as well as John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands (2016), Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead (2016), and Tom Engelhardt’s Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (2014).

Copyright 2017 Alfred W. McCoy

(c) 2017 TomDispatch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Uncategorized

How a Pink Flower Defeated the World’s Sole Superpower

America’s Opium War in Afghanistan

by Alfred W McCoy

TomDispatch (February 21 2016)

After fighting the longest war in its history, the United States stands at the brink of defeat in Afghanistan. How can this be possible? How could the world’s sole superpower have battled continuously for fifteen years, deploying 100,000 of its finest troops, sacrificing the lives of 2,200 of those soldiers, spending more than a trillion dollars on its military operations, lavishing a record hundred billion more on “nation-building” and “reconstruction”, helping raise, fund, equip, and train an army of 350,000 Afghan allies, and still not be able to pacify one of the world’s most impoverished nations? So dismal is the prospect for stability in Afghanistan in 2016 that the Obama White House has recently canceled a planned further withdrawal of its forces and will leave an estimated 10,000 troops in the country indefinitely.

Were you to cut through the Gordian knot of complexity that is the Afghan War, you would find that in the American failure there lies the greatest policy paradox of the century: Washington’s massive military juggernaut has been stopped dead in its steel tracks by a pink flower, the opium poppy.

For more than three decades in Afghanistan, Washington’s military operations have succeeded only when they fit reasonably comfortably into Central Asia’s illicit traffic in opium and suffered when they failed to complement it. The first US intervention there began in 1979. It succeeded in part because the surrogate war the CIA launched to expel the Soviets from that country coincided with the way its Afghan allies used the country’s swelling drug traffic to sustain their decade-long struggle.

On the other hand, in the almost fifteen years of continuous combat since the US invasion of 2001, pacification efforts have failed to curtail the Taliban insurgency largely because the US could not control the swelling surplus from the county’s heroin trade. As opium production surged from a minimal 180 tons to a monumental 8,200 in the first five years of US occupation, Afghanistan’s soil seemed to have been sown with the dragon’s teeth of ancient Greek myth. Every poppy harvest yielded a new crop of teenaged fighters for the Taliban’s growing guerrilla army.

At each stage in Afghanistan’s tragic, tumultuous history over the past forty years – the covert war of the 1980s, the civil war of the 1990s, and the US occupation since 2001 – opium played a surprisingly significant role in shaping the country’s destiny. In one of history’s bitter twists of fate, the way Afghanistan’s unique ecology converged with American military technology transformed this remote, landlocked nation into the world’s first true narco-state – a country where illicit drugs dominate the economy, define political choices, and determine the fate of foreign interventions.

Covert Warfare (1979~1992)

The CIA’s secret war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s helped transform the lawless Afghan-Pakistani borderlands into the seedbed for a sustained expansion of the global heroin trade. “In the tribal area”, the State Department would report in 1986, “there is no police force. There are no courts. There is no taxation. No weapon is illegal … Hashish and opium are often on display”. By then, the process had long been underway. Instead of forming its own coalition of resistance leaders, the Agency relied on Pakistan’s crucial Inter-Service Intelligence (“ISI”) and its Afghan clients who soon became principals in the burgeoning cross-border opium traffic.

Not surprisingly, the Agency looked the other way while Afghanistan’s opium production grew unchecked from about 100 tons annually in the 1970s to 2,000 tons by 1991. In 1979 and 1980, just as the CIA effort was beginning to ramp up, a network of heroin laboratories opened along the Afghan-Pakistan frontier. That region soon became the world’s largest heroin producer. By 1984, it supplied a staggering sixty percent of the US market and eighty percent of the European one. Inside Pakistan, the number of heroin addicts went from near zero (yes, zero) in 1979 to 5,000 in 1980 and 1,300,000 by 1985 – a rate of addiction so high the UN called it “particularly shocking”.

According to the 1986 State Department report, opium “is an ideal crop in a war-torn country since it requires little capital investment, is fast growing, and is easily transported and traded”. Moreover, Afghanistan’s climate was well suited to this temperate crop, with average yields two to three times higher than in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle region, the previous capital of the opium trade. As relentless warfare between CIA and Soviet surrogates generated at least three million refugees and disrupted food production, Afghan farmers began to turn to opium “in desperation” since it produced such easy “high profits” which could cover rising food prices. At the same time, resistance elements, according to the State Department, engaged in opium production and trafficking “to provide staples for [the] population under their control and to fund weapons purchases”.

As the mujahedeen resistance gained strength and began to create liberated zones inside Afghanistan in the early 1980s, it helped fund its operations by collecting taxes from peasants producing lucrative opium poppies, particularly in the fertile Helmand Valley, once the breadbasket of southern Afghanistan. Caravans carrying CIA arms into that region for the resistance often returned to Pakistan loaded down with opium – sometimes, The New York Times reported, “with the assent of Pakistani or American intelligence officers who supported the resistance”.

Once the mujahedeen fighters brought the opium across the border, they sold it to Pakistani heroin refiners operating in the country’s North-West Frontier Province, a covert-war zone administered by the CIA’s close ally, General Fazle Haq. By 1988, there were an estimated 100 to 200 heroin refineries in the province’s Khyber district alone. Further south in the Koh-i-Soltan district of Baluchistan Province, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the CIA’s favored Afghan asset, controlled six refineries that processed much of the opium harvest from the Helmand Valley into heroin. Trucks of the Pakistani army’s National Logistics Cell, arriving in these borderlands from the port of Karachi with crates of weaponry from the CIA, left with cargos of heroin for ports and airports where it would be exported to world markets.

In May 1990, as this covert operation was ending, The Washington Post reported that the CIA’s chief asset Hekmatyar was also the rebels’ leading heroin trafficker. American officials, the Post claimed, had long refused to investigate charges of heroin dealing by Hekmatyar, as well as Pakistan’s ISI, largely “because US narcotics policy in Afghanistan has been subordinated to the war against Soviet influence there”.

Indeed, Charles Cogan, former director of the CIA’s Afghan operation, later spoke frankly about his Agency’s choices. “Our main mission was to do as much damage as possible to the Soviets”, he told Australian television in 1995. “We didn’t really have the resources or the time to devote to an investigation of the drug trade. I don’t think that we need to apologize for this … There was fallout in term of drugs, yes. But the main objective was accomplished. The Soviets left Afghanistan.”

The Afghan Civil War and the Rise of the Taliban (1989〜2001)

Over the longer term, such a “clandestine” intervention (so openly written and bragged about) produced a black hole of geopolitical instability never sealed or healed thereafter.

Lying at the northern reaches of the seasonal monsoon, where rain clouds arrive already squeezed dry, arid Afghanistan never recovered from the unprecedented devastation it suffered in the years of the first American intervention. Other than irrigated areas like the Helmand Valley, the country’s semi-arid highlands were already a fragile ecosystem straining to sustain sizeable populations when war first broke out in 1979. As that war wound down between 1989 and 1992, the Washington-led alliance essentially abandoned the country, failing either to sponsor a peace settlement or finance reconstruction.

Washington simply turned elsewhere as a vicious civil war broke out in a country with 1.5 million dead, three million refugees, a ravaged economy, and a bevy of well-armed warlords primed to fight for power. During the years of vicious civil strife that followed, Afghan farmers raised the only crop that ensured instant profits, the opium poppy. The opium harvest, having multiplied twentyfold to 2,000 tons during the covert-war era of the 1980s, would double during the civil war of the 1990s.

In this period of turmoil, opium’s ascent should be seen as a response to the severe damage two decades of warfare had inflicted. With the return of those three million refugees to a war-ravaged land, the opium fields were an employment godsend, since they required nine times as many laborers to cultivate as wheat, the country’s traditional staple. In addition, opium merchants alone were capable of accumulating capital rapidly enough to be able to provide much-needed cash advances to poor poppy farmers that equaled more than half their annual income. That credit would prove critical to the survival of many poor villagers.

In the civil war’s first phase from 1992 to 1994, ruthless local warlords combined arms and opium in a countrywide struggle for power. Determined to install its Pashtun allies in Kabul, the Afghan capital, Pakistan worked through the ISI to deliver arms and funds to its chief client Hekmatyar. By now, he was the nominal prime minister of a fractious coalition whose troops would spend two years shelling and rocketing Kabul in fighting that left the city in ruins and some 50,000 more Afghans dead. When he nonetheless failed to take the capital, Pakistan threw its backing behind a newly arisen Pashtun force, the Taliban, a fundamentalist movement that had emerged from militant Islamic schools.

After seizing Kabul in 1996 and taking control of much of the country, the Taliban regime encouraged local opium cultivation, offering government protection to the export trade and collecting much-needed taxes on both the opium produced and the heroin manufactured from it. UN opium surveys showed that, during their first three years in power, the Taliban raised the country’s opium crop to 4,600 tons, or 75% percent of world production at that moment.

In July 2000, however, as a devastating drought entered its second year and mass starvation spread across Afghanistan, the Taliban government suddenly ordered a ban on all opium cultivation in an apparent appeal for international recognition and aid. A subsequent UN crop survey of 10,030 villages found that this prohibition had reduced the harvest by 94% to a mere 185 tons.

Three months later, the Taliban sent a delegation headed by its deputy foreign minister, Abdur Rahman Zahid, to UN headquarters in New York to barter a continuing drug prohibition for diplomatic recognition. That body instead imposed new sanctions on the regime for protecting Osama bin Laden. The US, on the other hand, actually rewarded the Taliban with $43 million in humanitarian aid, even as it seconded UN criticism over bin Laden. Announcing this aid in May 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell praised “the ban on poppy cultivation, a decision by the Taliban that we welcome” and urged the regime to “act on a number of fundamental issues that separate us: their support for terrorism; their violation of internationally recognized human rights standards, especially their treatment of women and girls”.

The War on Terror (2001~2016)

After a decade of ignoring Afghanistan, Washington rediscovered the place with a vengeance in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Only weeks later, in October 2001, the US began bombing the country and then launched an “invasion” spearheaded by local warlords. The Taliban regime collapsed, in the words of veteran New York Times reporter R W Apple, with a speed “so sudden and so unexpected that government officials and commentators on strategy … are finding it hard to explain”. Although the US air attacks did considerable physical and psychological damage, many other societies have withstood far more massive bombardments without collapsing in this fashion. In retrospect, it seems likely that the opium prohibition had economically eviscerated the Taliban, leaving its theocracy a hollow shell that shattered with the first American bombs.

To an extent not generally appreciated, for the previous two decades Afghanistan had devoted a growing share of its resources – capital, land, water, and labor – to the production of opium and heroin. By the time the Taliban outlawed cultivation, the country had become, agriculturally, little more than an opium monocrop. The drug trade accounted for most of its tax revenues, almost all its export income, and much of its employment. In this context, opium eradication proved to be an act of economic suicide that brought an already weakened society to the brink of collapse. Indeed, a 2001 UN survey found that the ban had “resulted in a severe loss of income for an estimated 3.3 million people”, fifteen percent of the population, including 80,000 farmers, 480,000 itinerant laborers, and their millions of dependents.

While the US bombing campaign raged throughout October 2001, the CIA spent $70 million “in direct cash outlays on the ground” to mobilize its old coalition of tribal warlords to take down the Taliban, an expenditure President George W Bush would later hail as one of history’s biggest “bargains”. To capture Kabul and other key cities, the CIA put its money behind the leaders of the Northern Alliance, which the Taliban had never fully defeated. They, in turn, had long dominated the drug traffic in the area of northeastern Afghanistan they controlled in the Taliban years. In the meantime, the CIA also turned to a group of rising Pashtun warlords who had been active as drug smugglers in the southeastern part of the country. As a result, when the Taliban went down, the groundwork had already been laid for the resumption of opium cultivation and the drug trade on a major scale.

Once Kabul and the provincial capitals were taken, the CIA quickly ceded operational control to uniformed allied forces and civilian officials whose inept drug suppression programs in the years to come would, in the end, leave the heroin traffic’s growing profits first to those warlords and, in later years, largely to the Taliban guerrillas. In the first year of US occupation, before that movement had even reconstituted itself, the opium harvest surged to 3,400 tons. In a development without historical precedent, illicit drugs would be responsible for an extraordinary 62% percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2003. For the first few years of the US occupation, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “dismissed growing signs that drug money was being funneled to the Taliban”, while the CIA and the US military “turned a blind eye to drug-related activities by prominent warlords”.

In late 2004, after nearly two years in which it showed next to no interest in the subject, outsourcing opium control to its British allies and police training to the Germans, the White House was suddenly confronted with troubling CIA intelligence suggesting that the escalating drug trade was fueling a revival of the Taliban. Backed by President Bush, Secretary of State Powell then urged an aggressive counter-narcotics strategy, including a Vietnam-style aerial defoliation of parts of rural Afghanistan. But US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad resisted this approach, seconded by his local ally Ashraf Ghani, then the country’s finance minister (and now its president), who warned that such an eradication program would mean “widespread impoverishment” in the country without $20 billion in foreign aid to create “genuine alternative livelihood[s]”.

As a compromise, Washington came to rely on private contractors like DynCorp to train Afghan manual eradication teams. However, by 2005, according to New York Times correspondent Carlotta Gall, that approach had already become “something of a joke”. Two years later, as the Taliban insurgency and opium cultivation both spread in what seemed to be a synergistic fashion, the US Embassy again pressed Kabul to accept the kind of aerial defoliation the US had sponsored in Colombia. President Hamid Karzai refused, leaving this critical problem unresolved.

The UN’s Afghanistan Opium Survey 2007 found that the annual harvest was up 24% to a record 8,200 tons, which translated into 53% of the country’s GDP and 93% of the world’s illicit heroin supply. Significantly, the UN stated that Taliban guerrillas had “started to extract from the drug economy resources for arms, logistics, and militia pay”. A study for the US Institute of Peace concluded that, by 2008, the movement had fifty heroin labs in its territory and controlled 98% of the country’s poppy fields. That year, it reportedly collected $425 million in “taxes” levied on opium traffic, and with every harvest, it gained the necessary funds to recruit a new crop of young fighters from the villages. Each of those prospective guerrillas could count on monthly payments of $300, far above the wages they would have made as agricultural laborers.

In mid-2008, to contain the spreading insurgency, Washington decided to commit 40,000 more American combat troops to the country, raising allied forces to 70,000. Recognizing the crucial role of opium revenues in Taliban recruitment practices, the US Treasury also formed the Afghan Threat Finance Cell and embedded sixty of its analysts in combat units charged with launching strategic strikes against the drug trade.

Using quantitative methods of “social network analysis” and “influence network modeling”, those instant civilian experts would often, according to one veteran analyst, “point to hawala brokers [rural creditors] as critical nodes within an insurgent group’s network”, prompting US combat soldiers to take “kinetic courses of action – quite literally, kicking down the door of the hawala office and shutting down the operation”. Such “highly controversial” acts might “temporarily degrade the financial network of an insurgent group”, but those gains came “at the cost of upsetting an entire village” dependent on the lender for legitimate credit that was the “vast majority of the hawalador’s business”. In this way, once again, support for the Taliban grew.

By 2009, the guerrillas were expanding so rapidly that the new Obama administration opted for a “surge” in US troop strength to 102,000 in a bid to cripple the Taliban. After months of rising troop deployments, President Obama’s new war strategy was officially launched on February 13 2010, in Marja, a remote market town in Helmand Province. As waves of helicopters descended on its outskirts spitting up clouds of dust, hundreds of Marines sprinted through fields of sprouting opium poppies toward the town’s mud-walled compounds. Though their target was the local Taliban guerrillas, the Marines were, in fact, occupying the capital of the global heroin trade. Forty percent of the world’s illicit opium supply was grown in the surrounding districts and much of that crop was traded in Marja.

A week later, US Commander General Stanley McChrystal choppered into town with Karim Khalili, Afghanistan’s vice president, for the media rollout of a new-look counterinsurgency strategy that, he told reporters, was rock-solid certain to pacify villages like Marja. Only it would never be so because the opium trade would spoil the party. “If they come with tractors”, one Afghan widow announced to a chorus of supportive shouts from her fellow farmers, “they will have to roll over me and kill me before they can kill my poppy”. Speaking by satellite telephone from the region’s opium fields, a US Embassy official told me: “You can’t win this war without taking on drug production in Helmand Province”.

Watching these events unfold nearly six years ago, I wrote an essay for TomDispatch warning of a defeat foretold. “So the choice is clear enough”, I said at the time.

We can continue to fertilize this deadly soil with yet more blood in a brutal war with an uncertain outcome … or we can help renew this ancient, arid land by re-planting the orchards, replenishing the flocks, and rebuilding the farming destroyed in decades of war … until food crops become a viable alternative to opium. To put it simply, so simply that even Washington might understand, we can only pacify a narco-state when it is no longer a narco-state.


By attacking the guerrillas but ignoring the opium harvest that funded new insurgents every spring, Obama’s surge soon suffered that defeat foretold. As 2012 ended, the Taliban guerrillas had, according to The New York Times, “weathered the biggest push the American-led coalition is going to make against them”. Amid the rapid drawdown of allied forces to meet President Obama’s December 2014 deadline for “ending” US combat operations, reduced air operations allowed the Taliban to launch mass-formation attacks in the north, northeast, and south, killing record numbers of Afghan army troops and police.

At the time, John Sopko, the US special inspector for Afghanistan, offered a telling explanation for the Taliban’s survival. Despite the expenditure of a staggering $7.6 billion on “drug eradication” programs during the previous decade, he concluded that “by every conceivable metric, we’ve failed. Production and cultivation are up, interdiction and eradication are down, financial support to the insurgency is up, and addiction and abuse are at unprecedented levels in Afghanistan”.

Indeed, the 2013 opium crop covered a record 209,000 hectares, raising the harvest by fifty percent to 5,500 tons. That massive harvest generated some $3 billion in illicit income, of which the Taliban’s tax took an estimated $320 million, well over half its revenues. The US Embassy corroborated this dismal assessment, calling the illicit income “a windfall for the insurgency, which profits from the drug trade at almost every level”.

As the 2014 opium crop was harvested, fresh UN figures suggested that the dismal trend only continued, with the areas under cultivation rising to a record 224,000 hectares and production at 6,400 tons remaining near historic highs. In May 2015, having watched this flood of drugs enter the global market as US counter-narcotics spending climbed to $8.4 billion, Sopko tried to translate what was happening into a single all-American image. “Afghanistan”, he said, “has roughly 500,000 acres, or about 780 square miles, devoted to growing opium poppy. That’s equivalent to more than 400,000 US football fields – including the end zones.”

In the fighting season of 2015, the Taliban decisively seized the combat initiative and opium seemed ever more deeply embedded in its operations. The New York Times reported that the movement’s new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, was “among the first major Taliban officials to be linked to the drug trade … and later became the Taliban’s main tax collector for the narcotics trade – creating immense profits”. After months of relentless pressure on government forces in three northern provinces, the group’s first major operation under his command was the two-week seizure of the strategic city of Kunduz, which just happened to be located on “the country’s most lucrative drug routes … moving opium from the poppy prolific provinces in the south to Tajikistan … and to Russia and Europe”. Washington felt forced to slam down the brakes on planned further withdrawals of its combat forces.

Amid a rushed evacuation of its regional offices in the threatened northern provinces, the UN released a map in October showing that the Taliban had “high” or “extreme” control in more than half the country’s rural districts, including many where they had not previously been a significant presence. Within a month, the Taliban unleashed offensives countrywide that aimed at seizing and holding territory, threatening military bases in northern Faryab Province and encircling entire districts in western Herat.

Not surprisingly, the strongest attacks came in the poppy heartland of Helmand Province, where half the country’s opium crop was then grown and, said The New York Times, “the lucrative opium trade made it crucial to the insurgents’ economic designs”. By mid-December, after overrunning checkpoints, winning back much of the province, and setting government security forces back on their heels, the guerrillas came close to capturing that heart of the heroin trade, Marja, the very site of President Obama’s media-saturated surge rollout in 2010. Had US Special Operations forces and the US Air Force not intervened to relieve “demoralized” Afghan forces, the town and the province would undoubtedly have fallen. By early 2016, fourteen-plus years after Afghanistan was “liberated” by a US invasion, and in a significant reversal of Obama administration drawdown policies, the US was reportedly dispatching “hundreds” of new US troops in a mini-surge into Helmand Province to shore up the government’s faltering forces and deny the insurgents the “economic prize” of the world’s most productive poppy fields.

After a disastrous 2015 fighting season that inflicted what US officials have termed “unsustainable” casualties on the Afghan army and what the UN called the “real horror” of record civilian losses, the long, harsh winter that has settled across the country is offering no respite. As cold and snow slowed combat in the countryside, the Taliban shifted operations to the cities, with five massive bombings in Kabul and other key urban areas in the first week of January, followed by a suicide attack on a police complex in the capital that killed twenty officers.

Meanwhile, as the 2015 harvest ended, the country’s opium cultivation, after six years of sustained growth, slipped by 18% to 183,000 hectares and the crop yield dropped steeply to 3,300 tons. While UN officials attributed much of the decline to drought and the spread of a poppy fungus, conditions that might not continue into 2016, long-term trends are still an unclear mix of positive and negative news. Buried in the mass of data published in the UN’s drug reports is one significant statistic: as Afghanistan’s economy grew from years of international aid, opium’s share of GDP dropped steadily from a daunting 63% in 2003 to a far more manageable 13% in 2014. Even so, the UN says, “dependency on the opiate economy at the farmer level in many rural communities is still high”.

At that local level in Helmand Province, “Afghan government officials have also become directly involved in the opium trade”, The New York Times recently reported. In doing so, they expanded “their competition with the Taliban … into a struggle for control of the drug traffic”, while imposing “a tax on farmers practically identical to the one the Taliban uses”, and kicking a portion of their illicit profits “up the chain, all the way to officials in Kabul … ensuring that the local authorities maintain support from higher-ups and keeping the opium growing”.

Simultaneously, a recent UN Security Council investigation found that the Taliban has systematically tapped “into the supply chain at each stage of the narcotics trade”, collecting a ten percent user tax on opium cultivation in Helmand, fighting for control of heroin laboratories, and acting as “the major guarantors for the trafficking of raw opium and heroin out of Afghanistan”. No longer simply taxing the traffic, the Taliban is now so deeply and directly involved that, adds the Times, it “has become difficult to distinguish the group from a dedicated drug cartel”. Whatever the long-term trends might be, for the foreseeable future opium remains deeply entangled with the rural economy, the Taliban insurgency, and government corruption whose sum is the Afghan conundrum.

With ample revenues from past bumper crops, the Taliban will undoubtedly be ready for the new fighting season that will come with the start of spring. As snow melts from the mountain slopes and poppy shoots spring from the soil, there will be, as in the past forty years, a new crop of teenaged recruits ready to fight for the rebel forces.

Cutting the Afghan Gordian Knot

For most people globally, economic activity, the production and exchange of goods, is the prime point of contact with government, as is manifest in the coins and currency stamped by the state that everyone carries in their pockets. But when a country’s most significant commodity is illegal, then political loyalties naturally shift to the clandestine networks that move that product safely from fields to foreign markets, providing finance, loans, and employment every step of the way. “The narcotics trade poisons the Afghan financial sector and fuels a growing illicit economy”, John Sopko explains. “This, in turn, undermines the Afghan state’s legitimacy by stoking corruption, nourishing criminal networks, and providing significant financial support to the Taliban and other insurgent groups”.

After fifteen years of continuous warfare in Afghanistan, Washington is faced with the same choice it had five years ago when Obama’s generals heli-lifted those Marines into Marja to start its surge. Just as it has been over the past decade and a half, the US can remain trapped in the same endless cycle, fighting each new crop of village warriors who annually seem to spring fully armed from that country’s poppy fields. At this point, history tells us one thing: in this land sown with dragon’s teeth, there will be a new crop of guerrillas this year, next year, and the year after that.

Even in troubled Afghanistan, however, there are alternatives whose sum could potentially slice through this Gordian knot of a policy problem. As a first and fundamental step, maybe it’s time to stop talking about the next sets of boots on the ground and for President Obama to complete his planned troop withdrawal.

Next, investing even a small portion of all that misspent military funding in rural Afghanistan could produce economic alternatives for the millions of farmers who depend upon the opium crop for employment. Such money could help rebuild that land’s ruined orchards, ravaged flocks, wasted seed stocks, and wrecked snowmelt irrigation systems that, before these decades of war, sustained a diverse agriculture. If the international community can continue to nudge the country’s dependence on illicit opium down from the current thirteen percent of GDP through such sustained rural development, then perhaps Afghanistan will cease to be the planet’s leading narco-state and just maybe that annual cycle can at long last be broken.


Alfred W McCoy, a TomDispatch regular, is the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of the now-classic book The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade (2003), which probed the conjuncture of illicit narcotics and covert operations over fifty years. His more recent books include Torture and Impunity: The US Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation (2012) and Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (2009).

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Copyright 2016 Alfred W. McCoy

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